Unions discuss key issues with GE

NEW YORK - Health care, wages and pensions topped the talks between a multi-union coalition, headed by the United Electrical Workers, with General Electric.

With a June 19 contract expiration deadline looming, the two sides opened bargaining at the Sheraton City Centre in Manhattan with strong differences on those issues, particularly health care. GE's paid sick leave policy hasn't improved in decades. The talks affect tens of thousands of active GE workers and retirees.

UE President John Hovis, in his eighth set of negotiations with the company, warned GE not to take its workers' assent for granted. Workers "are an equal partner in these negotiations," Hovis warned, on behalf of the Coordinated Bargaining Committee.

GE workers have already started to mobilize to show solidarity for a good contract, with rallies in Ohio in May and in Erie, Pa., on June 5.

The unions, including UE, IUE-CWA, the Steelworkers, the Sheet Metal Workers, the Teamsters, the Professional and Technical Engineers, the Machinists, the Electrical Workers (IBEW), the Plumbers, and the Autoworkers, are particularly disturbed by GE's imposition of a one-size-fits-all health care plan on its non-hourly workers.

The company wants to extend that plan to its union workers, GE Health Care Program Director Virginia Proestakes said during their sessions. It also wants to abolish retiree health care coverage for workers who retire before age 65, she said.

"Proestakes' contention that GE's medical costs have skyrocketed was challenged by UE Conference Board Secretary Steve Tormey," the union coalition said. Tormey said that GE's cost increases were very modest, and at times "flat" during the current contract.

"When Proestakes characterized the Health Choice Plan as helping employees become more aware of the costs of medical care, be better consumers and lead healthier lifestyles, she was trying to put old wine in new bottles,'" the union said, citing GE rhetoric from 1991.

"The proposed cost-shifting Health Choice is unprecedented in its scope," Tormey said. "You don't need to charge me a $2,000 deductible." The unions pointed out GE's plan "contains deductibles of $2,000 - $4,000 for a family of three or more, in the salary range of most UE-GE members, depending upon which of three options or 'choices' an employee makes." GE's non-union workers are telling unionists they were hit with thousands of dollars in increased out-of-pocket health care costs.

"We are also determined to protect pre-65 and disability retirees from excessive medical costs which will undermine the secure and dignified retirement they deserve," Hovis added.

GE's profits and its tax payments - or lack thereof - arose when the unions pointed out that the average real wages of GE workers rose 1.5 percent yearly over the 4-year life of the present contract, far less than productivity. The union coalition promised to push for substantial raises, but did not disclose a figure.

The unions questioned GE's hard line at a time when it earned $14 billion last year, when it was profitable even in the Great Recession, when it holds a $30 billion cash reserve to buy other companies, when it plans to buy back its own stock, and when it paid no federal taxes last year.

Even GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt told investors to view it as an industrial company, not a financial company, again, Hovis noted. He also quoted Immelt's admission that GE "outsourced too much" work overseas and Immelt's doubts about building prosperity on services and consumption, not manufacturing. Immelt  "sounded like something from the pages of the UE News," Hovis added ironically.

But the company's bargaining stand on wages and benefits does not match Immelt's words, and the workers will not stand for that contradiction, Hovis warned.

"UE members are equal partners to these negotiations. Unlike employees in the company who lack representation, GE will again be reminded that our members are not so easily dictated to. GE workers remain among the best and most productive in the entire world; we should be rewarded as such.

"Last year alone, for example, GE workers produced an average of over $42,000 each in net profit...not approached by any perceived competitor. Such productivity has not resulted in any significant improvement in our living standards," Hovis stated.

Other company proposals the unions are battling include substitution of defined contribution pension plans for traditional defined benefit pensions, for both new hires and existing workers. Hovis called GE's proposal "a dark cloud" for its workers.

"Here again, without warning or precedent, GE simply shut off participation in the plan to exempt salaried new hires and certain others," last Jan. 1, Hovis said. GE's "newsletters seem to indicate we will be confronted with an onerous proposal to extend this to future hourly new hires. This is in spite of the fact that the plan is in excellent health, and remains in many ways a competitive advantage for GE. We are not prepared to sacrifice the pension plan on the altar of an accounting boost to GE's balance sheet."

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